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A Triumphant New LP Reissue: John Coltrane Quartet - Ballads

10-23-2020 | By Robert S. Youman | Issue 111

John Coltrane Quartet Ballads

Ballads is considered by many as an essential addition to any John Coltrane collection. First released on the Impulse label in mono and then later in stereo, it has continued to cause both consternation and praise by both critics and fans. This new 33 RPM stereo reissue is another wonderful addition to the Acoustic Sounds Series from Verve/Universal Music Enterprises. My guess is that the conversation will continue and that John Coltrane is smiling down on all of us and greatly enjoying it!

Mastered by Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound from the original analog tapes and supervised by Chad Kassem, CEO of Acoustic Sounds, this release is superbly pressed on 180 gram vinyl by Quality Records Pressing (QRP). My copy was extremely quiet and noise free. Packaging is provided by the Stoughton Printing Company with high quality gatefold sleeves and with tip-on jackets. All in all, this is one first class offering with plenty of love and care exhibited throughout. Someone is obviously paying attention to the details. 

Musicians include John Coltrane (tenor sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums). The album was produced by Bob Thiele and engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. It goes without saying that this is virtually an all-star team for both musicianship and production. I will restate this anyway, as it further explains why this recording is so special.

My comments above primarily concern the transition for Coltrane from his more traditional bebop and modal jazz style during his early Prestige and Atlantic years to his later more avant-garde efforts on the Impulse label. Coltrane's so called "Sheets of Sound," as coined by Down Beat music critic Ira Gitler, was an analogy of his extremely powerful and multi-dimensional improvisational style in those later years. The complexity of those performances could sometimes be overwhelming without the proper reflection and patience. It has also been claimed that this transition was highly influenced by Coltrane's strong personal beliefs in religion and spirituality.

Ballads was Coltrane's fifth release on the Impulse label. In contrast to his earlier Impulse albums and what is considered his later Impulse masterpiece, A Love Supreme, Ballads was certainly a clear change in pace and delivery. At the time, some criticized Coltrane for selling out. I strongly disagree.

Simple and elegantly restrained, I find the results to be quietly inspirational, yet with plenty of passion and subtle nuance. Solos are tasty and quite memorable. There is a wonderful sense of pace and rhythm presented by all four members of the quartet—especially McCoy Tyner. For all of these reasons, this is one of my favorite Coltrane recordings. My wife and I greatly enjoy sitting by a roaring fire on a cool cozy night with a nice dry cabernet and listening to this music. 


When it comes to sound quality, lets first talk about the elephant in the room. Many audiophiles and jazz collectors will want to know if this release can compete with the very best from the Music Matters and Tone Poet labels. Both primarily focus on Blue Note reissues which were also originally engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. If these labels are the benchmark, the answer is an unqualified yes!!

Let's not forget that Chad Kassem and Acoustic Sounds have a long history of hugely successful reissues across many music genres and original labels via Analogue Productions. This is not Chad's first trip to the rodeo. In particular, the Analogue Productions 45 RPM series of jazz reissues is still considered the gold standard for many classic albums.

One of my key comparisons for this review was the 45 RPM Original Recordings Group (ORG) reissue of the same title in 2009. It was mastered by the esteemed Bernie Grundman. If you check eBay and Discogs, you will find that pre-owned copies can now go anywhere from $150 to $300 depending on condition. I was honestly amazed at how close this new 33 RPM faired in comparison, as most 45 RPM reissues typically have an advantage. In fact, I would say that it was more of a difference in mastering choices than a clear difference in sound quality.

In my listening room and setup, the 45 RPM did provide a slightly larger soundstage and a modest but noticeable extension on the top end. However, I personally preferred the additional weight and bloom of the 33 RPM. Overall transparency was a tossup, but the 33 RPM had my hair standing on end during Coltrane's solos. The "woody," "reedy" texture of Cotrane's sax has never sounded better. Even piano had additional power and authority, something that Rudy Van Gelder is not known for in his recordings of acoustic piano.

Though I do not have an original pressing, I do have a 200 gram heavy weight GRP Impulse 33 RPM reissue from 1995. I have always enjoyed this reissue as there was a certain roundness and lack of edge during playback. It was a great relief from listening to digital back in the day. When now compared directly to the ORG and the Acoustic Sounds, the GRP sounded considerably different. On the GRP, it seemed like all of the life and air of the original recording was virtually sucked out of both the top and bottom frequencies. Mids were still quite alluring, but now the sound stage appeared to be surprisingly flat and two dimensional.

This was all very disappointing to my bank account as the obvious will probably become the reality. I have a considerable investment in many of these same 200 gram heavy weight GRP reissues for several Impulse titles. Despite that, I am hoping that this will just provide more opportunities for Acoustic Sounds to step up their game once again (see my comments below on A Love Supreme).

Nancy (With The Laughing Face)

Let's take a close look at one track in particular: "Nancy (With The Laughing Face)." If there was ever a song that could prove John Coltrane's ability to really perform and communicate the heart and soul of a ballad, this is it. Composed by Jimmy Van Huesen in 1942, it was originally called "Bessie (With The Laughing Face)."

Rumor had it that Coltrane wrote the song for Frank Sinatra's daughter or maybe even his wife, both of the same name. As we know from the above, this is not the case. Still others claim that it was performed by Coltrane at the daughter's birthday party and supposedly Frank just loved it. Many of these tales still need to be sorted out, but the essence of the song is still highly impassioned and Coltrane delivers.

This is just one of many tracks on the LP that will have you wanting for more. Coltrane and his swooning tenor sax just seem to pop out of a deep black background with a three dimensionality and breath of air that might just startle you. Tyner on piano is also clearly visible, but he appropriately takes a back seat as Coltrane takes the front stage. 

As I stated earlier, Rudy gets the ebony and ivory just right on this recording. Maybe it is buried on many of his albums, but you can clearly hear it here done correctly on this pressing. You can almost see Tyner's fingertips hit the keys as he follows along with Coltrane circling up and down the melody.

Elvin Jones on drums is also well presented. Unlike the 45 RPM ORG, you get more of the wood of his drum sticks and more metal than sizzle on his hi-hat. This is not to say that all of these instruments lack inner detail on the 33 RPM Acoustic Sounds. You just get a more organic and natural layering of the information. Less hype. Just the substance. Again, the preference between the two will be in the eye or should I say the ear of the beholder.

Final Thoughts

I have also listened extensively to the new John Coltrane A Love Supreme, from the same Acoustic Sounds series. I am fairly confident that this title will get plenty of attention, so I decided to leave that review to the many others. I will say however, that it too is simply outstanding and deserves your attention. Sound quality is similar to that described above.

However, let's not lose site of the key message at hand. Ballads is truly one of John Coltrane's best. It's not much of a stretch to say that for both jazz aficionado's and newbies, this music will touch a nerve and make a clear emotional connection. Very very accessible! IMHO, this is a must have reissue. Bravo Acoustic Sounds!  


Side 1

  1. Say It (Over and Over Again) 4:15
  2. You Don't Know What Live Is 5:11
  3. Too Young To Go Steady 4:20
  4. All Or Nothing At All 3:35

Side 2

  1. I Wish I Knew 4:54
  2. What's New 3:43
  3. It's Easy To Remember 2:45
  4. Nacy (With The Smiling Face) 3:09


  • Producer: Bob Thiele
  • Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder
  • LP Reissue Supervisor: Chad Kassem, Acoustic Sounds
  • LP Mastering: Ryan K. Smith, Sterling Sound
  • Cover and Liner Photos: Jim Marshall
  • Cover Design: Flynn/Viceroy
  • Liner Design: Joe Lebow

Acoustic Sounds